Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Weather’s Getting Extremely … Extreme

An old friend of mine said to me last year: “I don’t know whether to be concerned about global warming, or to just enjoy it."

Ah!  If only the researchers who first discovered global warming had consulted a PR agent before naming the thing!  “Warm” or “warming” is almost always a pleasant thing: affable, affectionate, friendly, snug or toasty.  As a verb, it can mean to animate, enliven, arouse or gladden.  We all like warm fuzzies, warm hearts, and a warm welcome.

No wonder my friend hopes to enjoy global warming.  It’s tempting to think that climate change will simply make Buffalo, NY feel like Ashville, NC. But we’re not going to be nearly that lucky.

Pakistan flood victims not enjoying global warming
Here are a couple of suggestions for a better name.  One might be “climate chaos.”   Or maybe, we might try “global extreming.”   Extreming?  That’s not even a word!  But maybe it captures a picture of the world facing us and our children.  Here’s why:

For starters, we can’t deny it -- the climate is indeed getting warmer.  So global “warming” is – at a minimum – a valid name.  Last year was tied for the hottest year on record for the earth.  9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. And it’s not just a few scorchers at fault; it’s staying hot.  Consider:  According to NOAA, the last 12 five-year periods (2006-2010, 2005-2009, and back to 1995-1999) are the 12 hottest such five-year periods ever recorded.  12 for 12.  God’s world is clearly getting hot.

And worse, the heating is accelerating.  Look at the chart below showing annual temperature deviations from the 1971-2000 average for all years from 1901 to 2008 for the continental United States.  It shows that for entire period, temperatures are climbing at a pace of 1.28 degrees per century.  That’s serious.  But now, look at just the last 30 years:  the warming rate is a shocking 5.84 degrees per century. Do we all see what’s happening?  The rate of global heating is almost five times faster in the last 30 years than it’s been for the entire century.

So the world is just getting hotter, right?

Not at all.  If only it were that simple.  NASA’s lead climate scientist, James Hansen, has repeatedly tried to correct this impression for our political leaders.  Of course, he says, the warmer earth today features worse droughts and heat waves.  “However,” he notes, “because a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, global warming must also increase the intensity of the other extreme of the hydrological cycle – meaning heavier rains, more extreme floods, and more intense storms ….”  And add to that severe winter cold spells occurring with the weakening of the polar vortex, and you have a chaotic collection of climatic extremes.

Okay, that’s what they say.  But what’s happening in the real world?

Well, in fact, global rainfall is increasing, as expected.  In the U.S. it’s increased by 6% per century since 1901, accelerating at a much higher rate in the last 30 years.  And, as expected, it’s not coming in gentle “farmer’s rains,” but in increasingly intense floods.  And at the same time, fierce heat and drought is increasing throughout much of the world.  Just take a look at events in the last twelve months:

Pakistani mother carries her children to safety
Pakistan floods:  The Indus River system overran its banks with unprecedented fury in last summer’s record rains, wreaking $43 billion in damage upon the country (or 3 months' income for every man, woman and child) and displacing 20 million people.  Damage from the floods destroyed 1.4 million acres of cropland, leaving 70% of Pakistan’s 160 million citizens without access to proper nutrition.  Do the math:  112 million hungry people.

Fire and drought took 20% of Russia's 2010 wheat crop
Russian drought:  Last summer, the worst drought on record destroyed more than 20 percent of Russia’s wheat harvest.  As Russia is the fourth largest global wheat exporter, the drought hit the poor in Asia and Africa especially hard, driving up wheat prices by 90% by the end of summer.  Almost a year later, wheat prices are near record highs.

Workers cleaning toxic sludge in Devecser, Hungary
European floods:   Last fall, unusually heavy rains across Europe caused a landslide of toxic red sludge, associated with aluminum smelting, which quickly blanketed a 16-mile swath of Eastern Hungary.  The flood contaminated 270 homes, polluted hundreds of farms, and threatened the Danube River with concentrations of acids and heavy metals.

Middletown, CT rubble
U.S. snowfall:  You’ve noticed, eh?  The last two winters have been horrid.  Laborers all over the country have flocked to New England – where countless buildings have collapsed under the weight of the ice and snow – to work ten-hour days shoveling the roofs of buildings to keep them from being crushed by the weight.  In Middletown, CT, 130 barns have collapsed this winter, as have numerous downtown stores and offices.

Australian floods:  The two million residents of Brisbane suffered the worst floods on record last month, when relentless rainfall wiped out 25,000 homes and 5,000 businesses.  Local leaders said that the prospective cleanup and reconstruction would amount to a challenge of “postwar proportions.”  Worse yet, the floods have damaged about 30% of Australia’s wheat harvest.

Brisbane, Australia  flooding was the worst on record
Chinese farmer carrying water on parched field
China drought:  This year, China’s massive wheat belt is in the grip of severe drought.  Five provinces which account for 80 percent of Chinese wheat production are suffering their worst drought in more than 60 years, and the breadbasket of Shangdong has not seen this dry a season in 200 years. 

And the result of these climatic upheavals?  Higher food prices, increased global migration, increase in poverty, greater economic uncertainty and political upheavals.

Higher food prices:  The International Grains Council now estimates that world-wide wheat production will decline by 30 million tons this year, or roughly 5% of the total, while the world’s population continues to grow.  Wheat now goes for about $9.00 per bushel, up 72% from this time last year.  Tragically, the world’s poor don’t have an extra 72% to pay for more expensive bread, noodles or tortillas.  Consequently, we will surely see increasing malnutrition and desperation.

North African refugees overwhelming a Sicilian island
Increased human migration:  People will do almost anything rather than let their children starve.  As a first step, they migrate to where things appear to be better.  This week, the floodgates opened as thousands of Tunisians, fresh from celebrating their successful revolution, were driven by hunger across the Mediterranean in small boats, looking for a better life in Europe.

Extreme poverty:  Just this week, the World Bank issued a quarterly report, which found that recent food price hikes have added 44 million people to the ranks of those in extreme poverty.  Rising prices benefited 24 million people in poor countries, mainly farmers who received more for their crops. However, those same rising prices pushed 68 million people below the bank’s extreme poverty line, defined as someone living on $1.25 a day. The result is a net increase of 44 million people living in dire poverty because of food inflation. That represents about a 3.0 percent increase in the total number of people living in extreme poverty, which the bank calculates at about 1.2 billion.

Economic uncertainty:  While it’s hard to drum up wellsprings of sympathy for insurance companies, without them most business can’t function.  Munich Re, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, says climate-related events serious enough to cause property damage have risen significantly since 1980: Extreme floods tripled and extreme windstorms nearly so.   So how do you insure against a “hundred-year storm” – an event so epic that there is a 1 percent chance it will happen in a given year – when 100-year storms are seen every 10 years, and 10-year storms become regular events?  Extreme weather events are making nearly every insured activity much more expensive.

Will fledgling democracies survive 2011 food shortages?
Political upheaval:  We’ve all watched events in Egypt and Tunisia with admiration.  But let’s not fool ourselves.  While every human wants to be free from oppression, the most pressing need in the world is to be free from hunger.  Food riots have broken out repeatedly in the region in recent years, and the greatest peril to these young revolutions is undoubtedly the shortage of food which will likely grip their cities this summer.

So, if you ever hoped to “enjoy global warming,” you might want to think again.  It’s much harder to enjoy global hunger, global poverty and global chaos. 
Welcome to the brave new world of “Global Extreming.”

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

1 comment:

  1. This is, of course, why this all truly matters. I only hope that we care enough to think about something other than our pocketbooks. Like Mujuni - I hope that we care about him.